China's censors tested by microbloggers

In the opaque world of Chinese censorship, a few red lines shine through the murk. One of the clearest is: no gossip about top political leaders, their families or internal party affairs. But just as the authorities had vowed to tame China's rumbustious microblogs, they have seen an unprecedented wave of speculation and comment on the most sensitive subjects: political infighting, lurid allegations of murder and even (unfounded) claims of a coup. State attempts to control the web, including stern admonitions, large-scale deletions, real-name registration, website closures and even detentions have failed to rein in users. More intriguingly, some of the most startling rumours have proved at least partially true – leading some to wonder whether this is simply a battle between bold users and anxious censors, or something more complex.

The bombshells dropped by officials late on Tuesday – that the high-profile leadership contender Bo Xilai was suspended from his key political posts and that his wife, Gu Kailai, had been detained for the suspected murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood – mark China's biggest political upheaval for years. Yet microbloggers have received advance warning of almost every development in the unfolding scandal. Users detected the event that triggered it – the flight of Bo's ally and former police chief, Wang Lijun, to a US consulate – two days before the official admission. A post predicting Bo's dismissal as party secretary of Chongqing circulated widely two hours before the announcement. And claims that Gu had poisoned a Briton called Heywood emerged weeks before Tuesday's official statement.

"Because of the rumours of political struggle it has got hotter and hotter. You can't see any sign of people being unwilling to spread them," said Chinese writer and avid microblogger Michael Anti. International attention tends to focus on the Great Firewall, which stops Chinese citizens from reading sensitive content overseas, and constraints put on familiar western brands – the blocking of social media services such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, or the Chinese government's clash with Google, which saw the internet giant relocate search services to Hong Kong rather than continue to censor results.

But the world's largest internet population is far more interested in what happens on domestic sites – and particularly the "weibo" or microblog services, which boast about 300 million registered users. Microblogs, particularly Sina's Weibo, are where the clash of political controls, commercial interests and the urge of millions to share their thoughts on official scandals, or just last night's TV, play out.

"Weibo plays a much more important role in China than Twitter in the west, because of the heavy censorship imposed by the regime on the other media," said Beijing-based scholar Michel Bonnin...

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